Norwich mayor urges other cities slated to lose minor league teams to rally opposition

Norwich — The region's first big snowstorm hit Tuesday, but baseball was on the minds of Gov. Ned Lamont and Mayor Peter Nystrom in the ongoing fight to persuade Major League Baseball to drop its proposal to eliminate 42 minor league teams, including the Connecticut Tigers.

Nystrom on Tuesday sent a letter to his 41 counterpart mayors and elected leaders in cities in danger of losing their teams, urging them to contact Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred and ask that he withdraw the proposal.

“Our unified efforts represent over 40,000,000 baseball fans who will bear the burden of this proposed tragedy,” Nystrom wrote.

Nystrom also created a video with Connecticut Tigers’ staff to circulate in opposition to the MLB proposal.

“If Minor League Baseball is eliminated from Norwich, Connecticut and Dodd Stadium based on the current proposal by Major League Baseball, it would be devastating for not only Norwich, but all of eastern Connecticut and the region,” Nystrom wrote to fellow mayors and first selectmen.

Also Tuesday, Lamont sent a letter to Manfred highlighting the importance of minor league baseball to Connecticut, as well as to the major league teams it supports.

“The Connecticut Tigers are a valuable component of our state as the team provides families with an affordable sports and entertainment opportunity within their own local communities,” Lamont wrote. “That support from the community was proven just last year when the City of Norwich made an $800,000 investment to upgrade Dodd Stadium — a decision that was made because they recognize the advantages of having the league in this city.”

Norwich reached a new 10-year lease agreement in April with the Connecticut Tigers, the Short Season Single A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, and signed the lease Aug. 1 after it was approved by Major League Baseball. The lease agreement triggered the city’s approval of an $800,000 bond for stadium improvements, including new LED lights installed at the start of the 2019 season.

The proposed MLB overhaul, which would take effect after the 2020 season, calls for eliminating the entire 14-team New York-Penn League, with nine host cities losing their teams and five others having their teams shifted to other levels or leagues.

“I am a lifelong baseball fan myself, and it is apparent how beneficial a robust minor league system has been for the game,” Lamont’s letter continued. “These organizations provide the foundation for the outstanding on-field product we see in major league ballparks across the country. The elimination of this team would prevent thousands of fans in this region from attending professional baseball games and enjoying this great American pastime, which many of us have grown up with and valued throughout our lives.”

Lamont pointed out that Norwich is 98 miles from Fenway Park, 127 miles from Yankee Stadium and 130 miles from Citi Field, where the New York Mets play.

“MLB benefits greatly from the support of the community, and that includes the millions of fans who attend minor league games every season,” Lamont wrote. “Without these teams, fans throughout the country will not have an opportunity to attend a professional baseball game.”

Lamont was in Norwich on Tuesday morning addressing the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut but did not mention the baseball issue during his speech.

Lamont’s letter was sent on the heels of a letter sent Monday by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to Manfred expressing his opposition and concern. Pennsylvania would lose three teams under the plan: the AA Erie Seawolves and two New York-Penn League teams, the Williamsport Crosscutters and State College Spikes.

“Baseball is one of America’s favorite pastimes and Minor League Baseball teams have brought professional baseball and the joy of the game to many people across the country,” Wolf wrote to Manfred. “The result of your proposal will be detrimental to not only players and employees of teams who will lose their jobs, but to the communities these teams call home. Minor League teams support local businesses and host various forms of charitable work for their communities. In Pennsylvania, cutting these teams will take opportunities away from families to experience an affordable, family-friendly professional baseball game within a local setting.”

Also on Monday, Vermont U.S. Sen. And presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met with Manfred to express his opposition to the contraction plan. The Vermont Lake Monsters, also in the New York-Penn League, would be eliminated in the proposal.

According to an Associated Press story on that meeting, Sanders issued a statement following the meeting saying that Manfred said he was “committed to a good-faith negotiation” and that the commissioner was open to “solutions that would maintain professional baseball in the 42 communities while addressing concerns about facilities.”

The contraction proposal would allow cities and towns losing their teams to have low-level independent teams with no major league team affiliation. The plan calls for cutting the baseball amateur draft from 40 rounds to 20 rounds, inviting undrafted players to these teams in a try-out league dubbed the “Dream League.”

Critics have blasted the plan, saying such unaffiliated teams would have minimal value and attractiveness to fans.

A statement issued by Major League Baseball on Monday called the meeting with Sanders “productive” and said MLB “fully recognizes” the importance of professional baseball to host cities and towns. The statement also reiterated MLB’s “obligation” to ensure that minor league players have adequate and safe playing fields and are not subjected to unreasonable travel schedules.

“We repeatedly have stated both publicly and privately to the Minor Leagues,” the MLB statement said, “that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, MLB will offer every community that currently hosts professional baseball options to preserve baseball in a viable, fan-friendly, compelling format with the full support of MLB. We remain confident that solutions can be reached that satisfy the interests of all stakeholders.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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